When Elizabeth Edwards was a bankruptcy lawyer in Raleigh, N.C., she spent much of her court time in the "second chair," providing advice and often doing the heavy legal lifting for the lead attorney on a case. Being second chair was less glamorous than taking the lead, and it didn't come naturally to someone so outspoken, eloquent and whip-smart. But it gave Elizabeth what she wanted--more manageable hours and more time to spend with her children. And it was great training for advising her husband through a meteoric six-year rise from political neophyte to vice-presidential nominee. "I feel like I've honed my skills as a sounding board as well as anyone possibly could," Elizabeth said last week. "I try to be effective and honest, someone who tells him when what he's saying doesn't ring true."
If John Edwards can sometimes seem too smooth, too charming, too eager for his own good, Elizabeth, 55, is his antidote. More than just a wife and the mother of his kids, she's the gravitational force that keeps his feet on the ground, the buffer between the man she knows and the political commodity he's become. Early in the Democratic primaries, when the candidate's schedule called for him to perform the photo-op ritual of flipping pork burgers at the Iowa State Fair, Elizabeth nixed the idea as too phony. Later, when she felt the ads produced by her husband's media consultant, David Axelrod, didn't convey who he really was, her objections led to Axelrod's being replaced.
A Navy brat who moved often and spent nine years in Japan, Elizabeth Anania majored in English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and was halfway through a Ph.D. program in American literature when she decided to trade in Henry James' The Ambassadors for Black's Law Dictionary. It was at law school, in her civil-procedure class in 1974, that she met John Edwards, a country boy four years her junior. He says he found her "smarter and more sophisticated than I'd ever be." On their first date, he took her to hear a band at a Holiday Inn. "It was not love at first sight," she recalls. But Edwards persisted and won her over with his sunny outlook on life. In July 1977 they married at a small Chapel Hill church with no air conditioning. Despite vastly improved finances, Elizabeth still wears the $11 ring that John slipped on her finger that day, and they still celebrate each anniversary the way they spent the first one: by dining at Wendy's.
For the next 19 years, their life seemed to approach perfection. They had two children, Wade and Catharine; John's career as a trial lawyer took off, making them fabulously wealthy; and Elizabeth managed to juggle her own legal work with the duties she cared about most: attending PTA meetings, shuttling the kids to soccer games and making their Halloween costumes. One year, when Wade and his friends wanted to dress as parts of a golf course, she figured out how to make real grass grow on cardboard. The idyll collapsed in April 1996, when Wade, 16, died in a freak car accident.